Shoot, I don’t even know where to begin.
I’m reading Rob Bell’s latest – What Is the Bible? – and I’m digging it. In it he explores the human side of the Bible, looking at it for what it really is (from the cover): an ancient library of poems, letters, and stories.
It’s so easy to treat it one of two ways: 1) as a holy, sacred text offered from on-high that is infallible, untouchable, inerrant and practically perfect in every way. Or, 2) to just completely reject it. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been treating it as #1. Over the years though, particularly in recent years, I’ve been sliding more toward #2. There’s an internal check, though, which keeps me from going all the way into #2, but as time goes on I see it’s not that I’m sliding more and more toward junking the whole thing, but more toward junking my understanding and reading of it.
The Bible is something I’ve had with me ever since I was a kid. I remember trying to read it on my own as a kid and not getting a thing from it. Then, in the mid-90s, when I had my first real Jesus moment, it came alive to me in a new way. I still have the Bible I got around that time; maybe ’96 or so. It’s an old, beaten up NIV Study Bible. It still has this SUPER long list I wrote in the back of it, naming as many people as I could who I knew or had known. There were times I’d pray for chunks of the names each night over the course of a couple weeks.
Anyway, the systems of Western theology have failed me time and again – on varying levels and to varying degrees – over the years. Or, again, perhaps just my interpretations and implementations of them. In the most recent years – last five or so – I’ve learned that giving up worrying about getting it right has been the best thing for me to improve quality of life.
You see, during that aforementioned Jesus moment, the huge thing was this immense burden of guilt I felt lifted from my soul. For the first time in my life, I felt truly loved, truly safe, truly free. I had never gotten that feeling from anyone else before with perhaps one or two exceptions… It’s that feeling which accompanies the receiving of unconditional love. It’s that feeling that comes along with realizing you’re just enough, you’re just fine the way you are and there’s nothing you need to do to improve yourself except keeping on being you.
I wanted to share that feeling with as many people as I could; I wanted them to be able to feel what I felt. Part of what was taught from my sources of teaching (and what I still hear from time-to-time to this day) is that all who receive Christ’s love have a special gift; they have a cure to the cancer of sin dwelling in the hearts of all who live on the planet. If they don’t get that cure, if no one goes and tells them, then they’re doomed for an eternity in hell.
Over time I came to see a few fundamental flaws in that thinking, not the least of which is the immense guilt complex put upon eager believers wanting to do the right thing. It’s super easy to reach the conclusion that YOU are these peoples’ ONE AND ONLY HOPE for a shot at salvation. Some folks jump on that line of thinking and run with it. Good on them – we all have our journeys. But that’s not mine. Mine is not one to be motivated by guilt; for my understanding is that Jesus takes our guilt away.
For some reason or another, be it genes, inherited disposition, or something else altogether, I find it incredibly easy to be sucked into guilt and flesh that out with some masterful self-loathing. Every time I’d go back to the trough of the Church, somewhere at some point that kool-aid would come up again. So, after my divorce I junked it all again, throwing it into a fire and seeing what remained.
God always remains. You can’t burn the Infinite.
I know there’s more to it all – God; the Bible; faith, love, and hope… Getting out and seeing a fair amount of the world has helped me see this. Getting out from under the burdens of rules and guilt have helped. A very wise man told me that you can choose how you feel in a situation. All depends on how you look at it. Though I rarely believed him or understood him early on, I get it now.
Proverbs 3:5 – Trust in the LORD and lean not on your own understanding.
Don’t trust in rules; don’t trust in things just because a lot of people do; QUESTION AUTHORITY. Question religious authority.
Around that time (going back to the time shortly after my divorce), I heard the story of Mike McHargue on the You Made It Weird podcast. On the episode, he talks a lot about the brain, neuro science, and his story of how he grew up Southern Evangelical, became an atheist, and then a believer again. It spoke to me on so many levels.
Since then, I’ve been actively skeptical, trying to stay out of cynicism for extended periods, and trying to find what’s real and what’s BS; or what’s deeper than the mainstream, common understanding of things.
I’ve come to really appreciate Rob Bell. As I mentioned at the top, I’m reading his most recent book, this one about the Bible.
I just read chapter 13 in which he talks about the story of Jonah. Did a fish actually swallow Jonah, then spit him out three whole days later? Does that matter? Bell says it doesn’t matter because the bigger part is the heart of the story: Jonah going to Nineveh to preach a message of salvation and upon a magnificent success, he wants to kill himself, he wants to die.
In the cultural context, Jonah going to speak to the people of Nineveh, the King of Assyria, is like Elie Wiesel going to speak a message of salvation to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.
Bell’s point is that it’s easy to get caught up in whether or not a literal fish literally kept Jonah in its stomach for three days, literally spitting him up on some beach approximately 72 hours after swallowing him and miss that deeper part of the story – forgiving and loving your enemies.
Could any of us forgive and offer a similar message of hope to our greatest adversaries? Could we do it for democrats? For Trump supporters?
For Trump himself?
Or for Hillary Clinton, for that matter?
Could we offer a message of hope to members of the KKK, to bullies, to the members of ISIS?
Could we offer such a message to ex-boyfriends, ex-girlfriends, ex-spouses, to family members who do nothing but criticize you day after day? Just telling them that God loves them and wants the best for them?
I’m not saying anyone should; just asking if anyone could.
In that regard, I believe the deeper meaning of what I now believe to be a parable, at the time, wasn’t to encourage Israelites to plan mission trips to Nineveh. Rather, it’s important that we remember all of us on this planet – from the saintliest saint to the most despicable, vile asshole – are human beings. There should be no Us vs. Them – we’re all in this world together. And we’re all loved by God.
That’s something I never got from the Bible before. Twelve years on since my first meeting with Jesus I reckon it’s about time and better later than never.